January 23, 2012

New rules could boost New England renewable power

New England is decidedly short on coal mines and oil wells, but electricity grid watchers say a recent federal order could help the region finally unlock the power in the energy sources it does have.

A federal order issued last fall is intended to make it easier to construct transmission lines, costly and controversial projects that are notoriously tough to build.
More wires are badly needed in New England to connect customers to the region’s often remote sources of renewable power, which is needed because all six states have committed to using increasing amounts of renewable energy.

To date, the grid managers who plan transmission projects have focused almost exclusively on “reliability’’ — whether such projects would help keep power flowing when demand is high, such as on a stifling summer day.

But as part of the new FERC order, managers also must plan transmission that helps states meet policy goals, such as increasing renewable power use.

That’s a crucial step to actually getting renewable power generation built, said Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation.

“This stuff is not easy,’’ he said. “We’re going to need the whole portfolio of these solutions.’’

On Monday, the Conservation Law Foundation, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid and the New England Clean Energy Council will host a meeting of energy experts and entrepreneurs to discuss the regulatory changes and the importance of expanding transmission.

Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Edward Markey and FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur are keynote speakers and environmentalist Bill McKibben is a panelist at the summit.

The New England states are among 32 nationwide that set at least voluntary goals to increase reliance on renewable energy sources, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

New Hampshire, for instance, must obtain about 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Massachusetts must get 15 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. And another Massachusetts law requires the state to make an 80 percent reduction in total emissions by 2050, compared with 1990 levels.

The requirements create a need for more renewable power, and wind is New England’s most abundant source of it.

A 2010 report done for grid manager ISO New England said the region’s land and ocean winds are plentiful enough to supply nearly a quarter of its power by the end of the decade, if those winds can be tapped.

But the region’s best winds are in some of its most isolated areas, such as off the coasts and in northern Maine. So potential wind farms there can’t reach population centers without miles of high-voltage transmission lines that will cost billions of dollars.


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